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Art and Immortality in the Ancient Near East

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Art and Immortality in the Ancient Near East

By Mehmet-Ali Ataç. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018. Pp. xv + 285. $99.99. ISBN 978-1-107-15495-7 (cloth).

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Readers seeking an insightful interpretation of the Mari Investiture Scene, and of metaphysical symbolism within ancient Near Eastern art, will benefit from reading Ataç’s new monograph, Art and Immortality in the Ancient Near East. The volume presents a passionate—if somewhat eclectic—reflection on many of the issues Ataç has considered over the course of his previous work, including the religious and mythic aspects of ancient Near Eastern art, the representation of kingship, and the formation of the study of ancient Near Eastern art as an academic field. While Ataç focuses his gaze on the Mari Investiture Scene, he is mostly interested in uncovering overarching, enduring meanings in ancient Near Eastern visual representations. Therefore, the book also reads as a comparative study of some canonical works of ancient Near Eastern art. Readers should, however, be advised that the book engages with current scholarship selectively and that it lacks references to published works that are crucial not only to our understanding of the Investiture Scene but also to broader issues of ancient Near Eastern art.

Ataç’s main argument is that by examining the Mari Investiture Scene, and comparing it to works from Egypt, Anatolia, and, ultimately, Assyria, it is possible to bring to the fore a seldom-acknowledged layer of symbolic meaning in ancient Near Eastern art. This meaning, while elusive, pertains to royal transcendence. The first four chapters of the book focus on the famous wall painting (though, regrettably, no color image is included), excavated in Mari, a dominant city-state of the middle Euphrates (now Syria), and found outside the throne room of the 18th-century BCE palace. It is thought to represent a king of the Lim dynasty as he receives the insignia of kingship from the hands of a goddess, identified as Ishtar, within a monumental building flanked by superimposed, hybrid animals and surrounded by trees. Building on previous interpretations, Ataç analyzes the painting’s iconographic elements according to their respective positions in the composition. He associates the appearance of the “flowing vases” in the hands of goddesses in the lower register with flood myths and primordial water; the trees with a Garden of Eden; and a bird preserved in the upper register with transcendence (ch. 2). Stressing the reciprocal semiotic relationships between these elements, Ataç explores how this scene is placed outside of time. Ataç’s view of the importance of the flood myth to Mesopotamian kingship underlies his overall analysis (ch. 3). Finally, he regards the bands of running spirals around the scene (which are mostly known in the literature as “guilloches”) to be markers of timelessness, cycles of time, and immortality (ch. 4).

The book’s scope expands during this close reading of the Mari Investiture Scene, evoking a broad repertoire of ancient Near Eastern images. For instance, the author studies the Hittite winged disc, as well as Egyptian notions of posthumous deification, to support the idea that in the ancient Near East (in its broadest sense) images of kings were encoded with allusions to their royal afterlife, beyond earthly time (ch. 5). He suggests that such a symbolism is best exemplified by one of Ashurnasirpal II’s throne room reliefs, featuring a so-called Sacred Tree (Nimrud, Iraq, ninth century BCE). Finally, the author studies the continuation of such symbolic iconography and composition, standing for cosmic order, in Ashurbanipal’s relief known as the Banquet Scene (Nineveh, Iraq, seventh century BCE; ch. 6).

Ataç’s approach strives for a metasystem of decoding ancient Near Eastern art. In juxtaposing works from Mari in the second millennium BCE to Assyrian works from the first millennium BCE, Ataç makes a compelling case for tracing connections between imagery from ancient Near Eastern throne rooms (94, 148), extending well beyond a specific site, period, or culture. Through considering the iconography of various images, their compositions, and their combined semiotic meaning, he points to the ancient Near Eastern ruler’s visual presence within a plane of existence that may be described as timeless or of “sacral time” (3–5, 20–23). This sphere represents not only the king’s immortality but also his eschatological role, come “the end of days”— a concept better-known from biblical and other traditions of Abrahamic religions (26–29). (One might also say that the timelessness of Mari’s palace is further illustrated by the fact that the severe damage it recently suffered is not mentioned.)

While the book offers an intriguing intellectual journey, readers should be aware that Ataç’s work is obstructed by his disconnection with other publications in our field. This is first apparent with the laconic presentation of the Mari Investiture Scene, where readers are encouraged to consider the artwork in isolation, rather than as part of a complex syntax of mural art throughout the palace. While readers are left with the impression that the scene is best defined as Mesopotamian, 18th-century BCE Mari was also part of Levantine material culture, and it certainly could also be conceived as Amorite. Reading Ataç, one may think such cultural identities are nothing but secondary to an essentialist ancient Near Eastern identity, imagined as a nonfluctuating fixture of the land. Yet, the Investiture Scene has been seminal to the study of Levantine iconography, and any interpretation of its royal and religious symbolism that does not also account for a Levantine lens is at risk of being one-sided. There are abundant publications on the scene’s relationship with the Levantine so-called “architectural models” made of clay, which are rich with religious symbolism (see, as just one example, P. Beck, “The Cult-Stands from Taanach: Aspects of the Iconographic Tradition of Early Iron Age Cult Objects in Palestine,” in I. Finkelstein and N. Na’aman, eds., From Nomadism to Monarchy: Archaeological and Historical Aspects of Early Israel, Jerusalem 1994, 352–82). Such explorations of Levantine architectural models as buildings flanked by superimposed beings have been inseparable from the study of the dove as a central Levantine symbol, particularly in the Mari Investiture Scene (e.g., I. Ziffer, O My Dove, That Art in the Clefts of the Rock: The Dove-Allegory in Antiquity, Tel Aviv 1998, 48*–50*; and, most recently, S. Schroer, “The Iconography of the Shrine Models of Khirbet Qeiyafa,” in S. Schroer and S. Münger, eds., Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Shephelah, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 282, Fribourg and Göttingen 2017, 150). The author does not acknowledge these numerous works on Levantine religious art, though they could have supported his own views on the cosmic order represented in the Investiture Scene.

This is not to say that the Mari scene should be reduced to represent one single cultural label. In fact, it would have been helpful to address how contemporary research has interpreted wall paintings as expressions of movement between international courts, pointing to how wall art played a central role in the blurring of entities across the eastern Mediterranean basin during the second millennium BCE (e.g., C. von Rüden, “Beyond the East–West Dichotomy in Syrian and Levantine Wall Paintings,” in B. Brown and M. Feldman, eds., Critical Approaches to Near Eastern Art, Berlin 2013, 55–78). While Ataç does acknowledge that symbols such as running spirals are part of this far-reaching artistic exchange, he does not expand on the importance of wall art and its technique to the creating of a visual message or alluding to international contacts.

Overall, Ataç’s arguments tend to characterize the ancient Near East as an uninterrupted continuum, a monolithic entity, though he is well aware of the problems inherent in such an approach (1). Yet, Egyptian beliefs, Hittite symbolism, and Levantine art are vaguely outlined as they are called to illustrate Neo-Assyrian art throughout the book. In this, Ataç is explicitly interested in conversing with scholars from the mid 20th century, particularly A. Moortgat (Tammuz: Der Unsterblichkeitsglaube in der vorderasiatischen Bildkunst, Berlin 1949). Moortgat argued (1949, 22–30, 131–33) that Mesopotamian art systematically represented mythical concepts of immortality, while also stressing the longevity, or timelessness, of ancient Near Eastern visual themes—an approach that Ataç takes as well (1–2, 9–10). Indeed, Ataç’s call to reread past scholarship (3, 18) is of immense value to our field, but he would benefit from revisiting such works’ historical context, and also their reception. E. Porada, for instance, objected to Moortgat’s assumption that similar images maintained a fixed meaning across the ancient Near East throughout millennia (“Review,” JAOS 71, 1951, 178–80). By including such perspectives, Ataç would have also been able to address questions that may arise on reading this current volume today.

A final point—still on the topic of modern scholarship—is perhaps most critical. The bibliography regrettably lacks references to major works on Mesopotamian art that deal with the core issues of Ataç’s own study. Most notably, Z. Bahrani’s recent works about epistemology, metaphysics, and concepts of time and infinity within Ancient Near Eastern visual representations are not included (The Infinite Image: Art, Time and Aesthetic Dimension in Antiquity, London 2014; “The Phenomenal Sublime: Time, Matter, Image in Mesopotamian Antiquity,” in D. Karlholm and K. Moxey, eds., Time in the History of Art: Temporality, Chronology and Anachrony, New York 2018, [171–83]).

While the book’s engagement with modern scholarship is lacking, readers will appreciate Ataç’s search for layered religious meaning within visual art. Even though the nature of this meaning remains enigmatic, Ataç’s is a sensitive, detail-oriented voice, which calls for the opening of new scholarly vistas. Within limits, the book thus serves as a valuable contribution to scholars of Mesopotamian and Levantine art alike, in conveying nuances of Ataç’s semiotic approach, and also in promoting a study of throne room imagery as a research category.

Liat Naeh
University of Toronto

Book Review of Art and Immortality in the Ancient Near East, by Mehmet-Ali Ataç
Reviewed by Liat Naeh
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Naeh

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